For purposes of First Amendment protection, religiously-motivated disciplinary measures that merely exclude a person from communion are vastly different from those which are designed to control and involve. A church clearly is constitutionally free to exclude people without first obtaining their consent. But the First Amendment will not shield a church from civil liability for imposing its will, as manifested through a disciplinary scheme, upon an individual who does not consent to undergo ecclesiastical discipline.
A former parishioner brought an action against her former church and its elders, alleging invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress for words the elders spoke regarding her private life. The District Court, Tulsa County (Oklahoma) entered judgment in favor of the former parishioner. The elders appealed.
Was a state forensic inquiry into an alleged tortious act by the church against its former parishioner an unconstitutional usurpation of the church's prerogatives by a secular court and hence prohibited by the First Amendment?
The Court held that the former parishioner could not recover for the pre-withdrawal disciplinary actions of the elders. Conversely, it held that the former parishioner was entitled to recover for post-withdrawal acts of the elders, which were proven to have been tortious. The Court held that in testing the constitutionality of the lower court's action against the elders, the proper inquiry was whether, on the record, the elders' decision to discipline the former parishioner constituted such a threat to the public safety, peace, or order that it justified the state trial court's decision to pursue the compelling interest of providing its citizens with a means of vindicating their rights conferred by tort law. The Court held that there was competent evidence to support the jury's conclusion that the elders had intended to inflict emotional harm on the former parishioner. The judgment in favor of the former parishioner was reversed and remanded for a new trial confined to actionable post-withdrawal conduct.